Tawana Brawley Needs to Come Clean

She Matters: Decades after her rape hoax, she's being forced to pay off a defamation lawsuit.

Screenshot of Twana Brawley with the Rev. Al Sharpton (YouTube)
Screenshot of Twana Brawley with the Rev. Al Sharpton (YouTube)

(The Root) — In 1987 a 15-year-old black girl from upstate New York became the center of a national media circus. Tawana Brawley had gone missing, which, of course, wasn’t the story. It was when she was found that all hell broke loose.

After her four-day absence, a neighbor discovered Brawley, seemingly unconscious and unresponsive, lying in a trash bag. Her hair had been cut, and her clothes cut and burned. Her body was smeared with feces, and the n-word and “bitch” were written upside down in charcoal on her chest. She was taken to the hospital, where she indicated to an officer that she’d been dragged into the woods and repeatedly raped by six men, one of them a cop.

Seven months and a media firestorm later, a grand jury investigation found “there was no medical or forensic evidence that a sexual assault was committed on Tawana Brawley.” It’s believed that Brawley created the elaborate hoax to avoid being punished by her stepfather for staying out late and missing school.

In 1998 Steven Pagones, a former New York prosecutor and one of the men Brawley accused of raping her, sued Brawley for defamation. She was found liable for $190,000 at 9 percent annual interest. The ruling judge said of Brawley, “[She] appears caught up in her own fiction and unwilling or unable to recognize the grief and hurt she caused those she wrongly accused.”

She never paid her debt. Instead, Brawley promptly disappeared, changing her name and Social Security number. From then until now, she’s never explained what happened, never provided proof to back up her claims, never apologized to the men accused of raping her, their families or anyone who believed her story. 

Brawley is back in the news again, more than 25 years later. On Sunday the New York Post  reported in a cover story that Pagones had received 10 checks totaling $3,764.61.

In December the Post tracked down Brawley in Virginia, where she works as a nurse and is raising her daughter. In January Pagones filed court papers seeking the money he was owed from Brawley. A Virginia court ordered that the money be garnisheed from her wages.

“People criticize me for going after a hardworking single mother trying to support herself and child,” Pagones told the Post then. “My argument has been she has not been held accountable. If she is not going to tell the truth, then it is about the money … I look at this as another opportunity for her to tell the truth.”

Pagones has said that if Brawley confesses that she lied, he will forgive her debt. I wish she would take him up on the offer.